Like many other Middle Eastern countries, Lebanon has a rich history of coffee consumption. For centuries, Lebanese people have been enjoying coffee, where it is often brewed in a similar way to Turkish or Arabic coffee.
However, over the years, more coffee shops have opened in the country – particularly in the capital city of Beirut. But as the country continues to face a financial crisis, as well as ongoing political instability, it has been a challenge for some specialty coffee businesses to establish themselves.
To understand more about coffee consumption in Lebanon, and how it might evolve in the coming years, I spoke to two local roasters. Read on for more of their insight.
You may also like our article exploring coffee culture in Iran.
A brief history of coffee in Lebanon
Lebanon is a Middle Easern country located on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Alongside its world-renowned cuisine, coffee is one of the most important beverages consumed in the country.
It’s believed that coffee was first consumed in Lebanon in the mid 15th century – most likely having arrived from Yemen, where it was commonly roasted and brewed by Sufi Muslim people.
Throughout the 16th century, many coffee houses opened across the Middle East, including in Lebanon. People would meet in coffee houses to discuss social, political, and spiritual issues.
Over the centuries, coffee has still remained popular among the general population, and is mainly brewed in more traditional ways which are similar to Turkish and Arabic coffee.
Saddam Hussein is the head roaster at Café Younes, a specialty coffee chain in Beirut, Lebanon which was first established in 1935.
“In general, coffee has always been important to Arab people, but particularly for Lebanese people,” he says. “They can easily drink coffee throughout the day.
“For many, the smell of freshly roasted coffee is what drives them to buy more coffee,” he adds. “We receive many requests from people to buy coffee beans as soon as they are emptied from the roaster, but of course, you should allow freshly roasted beans to rest before brewing them.”
Broadly speaking, traditional Lebanese coffee is made using Brazilian arabica beans. It’s common for older consumers to buy up to 1kg of coffee, which is usually ground fine (similar to Turkish coffee). In fact, many older consumers often don’t specify their required grind size as it’s safe for roasters to assume they will brew their coffee in traditional ways.
Roast profiles for traditional Lebanese coffee tend to be darker than for Turkish coffee, which results in a bolder and more intense flavour profile.
Traditional ways of consuming coffee
To make traditional Lebanese coffee, you typically add 1 teaspoon of ground coffee, half a teaspoon of powdered sugar, and a pinch of cardamom to 1 cup of cold water in a long-handled rakweh coffee pot.
Ideally, the coffee is brewed slowly for a long period of time. Once the coffee begins to boil, it can be removed from the heat, before being brought back to a boil again. This process is usually repeated three times to create an intense, bold flavour profile.
Coffee is traditionally poured in front of guests and served in small patterned espresso cups on a tray with glasses of water.
It’s important to note that the amount of coffee and sugar that are added will vary depending on people’s taste preferences. When visiting someone’s home or workplace, you will often be asked how you drink your coffee – which usually insinuates how much sugar and coffee you normally add.
White coffee – also known as kahweh baida or café blanc – is also common in Lebanon. Although the name can be misleading for some, it contains no coffee and no milk. The beverage is prepared using orange blossom water and sugar, and is often consumed after eating rich food.
It’s common for many people in Lebanon to drink coffee at any time throughout the day – including after meals and in the late evenings. Coffee is also consumed at special occasions, including weddings and funerals, and can even be a significant part of traditional rituals.
For instance, in the Beqaa Valley (located about 60km northeast of Beirut) when attending a social gathering or event, people will typically drink coffee from the same cup. The main guest then takes a final sip, before the cup is broken. If a guest would like to drink more coffee, they will usually swirl their empty cup in their hand to indicate that they would like a refill.
Lebanese coffee shop culture
As for the country’s coffee shop culture, it has evolved immensely over the last few decades. Up until the 1960s, most coffee houses would serve Lebanese or Turkish coffee alongside hookah pipes, as well as fresh loose leaf tea and juices.
However, when coffee shops in Lebanon began introducing espresso machines in the late 1960s, “standard” espresso-based beverages started to become more popular. Alongside this, filter coffee and the French press have also become more prominent across the country’s cafés.
In Tripoli – which is the country’s second biggest city – there are many coffee houses which serve traditional Lebanese coffee, often with a hookah pipe. Beirut is also a popular city for coffee shops – as are the coastal cities of Saida, Batroun, and Byblos – which are each home to a handful of specialty coffee shops and roasters.
As well as in coffee shops, coffee is also served in most restaurants and bars, as well as roadside vans and kiosks. As standard, many of these will offer some form of takeaway filter coffee, espresso, cappuccinos, and traditional Lebanese coffee.
Is specialty coffee becoming more popular?
In Lebanon’s larger cities, third wave coffee shop culture started to become popular during the early-to-mid 2000s. At this point, as well as a number of emerging domestic coffee shops and roasters, more and more international brands began to appear in cities across the country.
Today, specialty coffee is particularly popular in Beirut, and many consumers are interested in learning more about where coffee comes from and how it is grown.
In line with this, more and more specialty coffee shops have opened in recent years, all serving a range of different coffees.
Hussein Chaar is a roaster in Lebanon, who has also worked as a barista.
“As we are new to the specialty coffee scene, we are always looking for new ways to evolve and move forward – even as a small local roaster,” he says. “Different roast profiles are becoming more popular, so we try to offer a variety of different roast levels, but most of our coffees are medium roast.”
Could third wave coffee shops become more common?
There’s no denying that Lebanese coffee culture has come a long way since the 15th century. However, following many years of civil conflict and an economic crisis which started in late 2019, almost 74% of the population live in poverty.
“Following the civil wars, as well as the Beirut port explosion in August 2020, some coffee shops and roasters closed,” Hussein says. “But the businesses that stayed open are resilient and doing well.
“I believe that specialty coffee still has a bright future in Lebanon in the coming decades,” he adds. “But traditional Lebanese coffee will always be peoples’ favourite regardless of how much specialty coffee grows in the country.”
It’s evident that traditional methods are likely to remain popular in Lebanon, largely thanks to its rich history and longstanding association with traditional ceremonies and special occasions.
However, there is clearly a growing specialty market, particularly in Lebanon’s larger cities. But just how much this market will grow and diversify remains to be seen – especially considering the ongoing financial crisis which is affecting the majority of the population.
Enjoyed this? Then read our article understanding the Middle East’s flourishing coffee market.
Photo credits: Café Younes
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